I will never forget the crisp October afternoon when we began outdoor seating at my San Francisco restaurant, Reem’s California. Seven months earlier, we had opened and closed in the same week, mere days before the shutdown limited us to takeout in a neighborhood that had yet to meet us. With no physical human connection—the antithesis to Arab hospitality, a practice filled with excessive touch and over-the-top gestures—we had to reimagine hospitality. For us, it meant keeping people safe and nourished, even if we were not able to witness it. But on that day, as I watched one of our customers sit outside, take a bite of her fresh, piping-hot bread, and nod with satisfaction, I burst out with pure tears of joy.
In my culture, the guest is an integral part of a hospitality experience. It would be sacrilegious, for example, to enter someone’s home and refuse an offering such as coffee or a sweet. It takes the pleasure out of the hard work endured to make someone’s day. I often think about how this translates to the role of a guest in a restaurant. When I dine out, I know that my experience can often come at the expense of others—from the understaffed kitchen to the small business owner struggling to keep up with rising costs. While I cannot control these circumstances, I can recognize what a gift it is to be a great guest, and the responsibility I have to rehumanize an experience that has historically been dehumanized for restaurant workers.
Practically speaking, this means that I engage with staff genuinely by asking my server questions, sharing a personal anecdote, and affirming their kindness with words and body language. I intentionally go up to the kitchen and thank the cooks for my meal. Most importantly, I tip generously, not for the “service” provided but rather as an extra investment that the team can thrive for the long-haul.
Restaurants are not just places to eat, but also vital community spaces that provide a sense of connection. When we thought we were going to lose our favorite restaurants at the height of the pandemic, we understood this all too well. We made it a duty to support them weekly, even daily, by getting takeout, donating to their mutual aid efforts, and investing in their fundraising campaigns. As a result we kept people employed, kept dollars in our neighborhoods, and invested in restaurants to feed large populations that plummeted into severe food insecurity. Everyone gained from this lasting partnership.
If we want restaurants to remain third spaces, places for sanctuary and connection, we all must play a part in making sure they thrive with our empathy and our resources. Restaurants can no longer simply be service providers or transactional spaces. We must see ourselves as equal players in the food ecosystem in this new era of building resilience in our communities. If we do not, we stand to lose much more than just our restaurants.
Reem Assil is a Palestinian-Syrian chef based in Oakland, CA and owner of Reem’s California, a nationally acclaimed restaurant in Oakland and Reem’s California Mission in San Francisco, inspired by Arab street corner bakeries and the vibrant communities that surround them.